This bio-play focuses on Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow), a journalist who in the 1950s had reached an astonishing level of influence in Washington, D.C. He was a staunch anti-Communist who nonetheless had no use for Commie-hunter Joseph McCarthy, a registered Republican who championed JFK, and a war hawk on the issue of Vietnam. He was also a closeted gay man. The results of a particular encounter with a young Russian man in 1957 reverberate throughout the later years of his life, and that is the story of The Columnist.
Playwright David Auburn is best known for the long-running Proof. The Columnist is as smart as that play, but is painted on a much wider canvas. As a result, it’s compelling mostly on an intellectual level, rather than a truly dramatic one like Proof. It moves at a measured pace; ideas contend with each other, but sometimes there are long stretches between actual incidents.
How Alsop responded to the immediate aftermath of his 1957 trick – the young Russian played here by the equally strapping and tender Brian J. Smith – is an amazing piece of history, one that Auburn withholds until the very last scene of the play, in the name of maintaining suspense and clarifying a whole set of things, good and bad, about Alsop’s character.
Director Daniel Sullivan (reuniting with Auburn 12 years after Proof) manages the whole thing with great finesse. These verbose, articulate people speed through paragraphs without becoming unclear for even a second.
Lithgow is marvelous as Alsop, showing the joys of an able man obsessed with victory for himself, his country and his causes. He also shows us the pain and ugliness of such a character when victory eludes him, as it increasingly did Alsop (he was decidedly on the wrong side of history where Vietnam was concerned). Lithgow is the primary reason to see this often thorny and occasionally rewarding new drama.
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